It may be that the popular celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day was orchestrated by the greeting card companies, as many of our sitcom husbands and boyfriends tend to insist — but is it possible that there is something salvageable in the tradition all the same?
Oscar Wilde is reported to have observed, “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Which is the same as to say that everything in the world is about power. And Mr. Wilde was certainly right in his assertion, though he was right in a way he could not have imagined.
The reality is that we live in a world of symbol and sacrament, wherein everything points to something else.
Jesus himself teaches us to view the world in this way. Even in parching his dry throat with cool water, he sees in the act a picture of the living water which God provides to those who ask (John 4:7–14).
When pestered by his followers about the need to eat to sustain his strength, he betrays a preoccupation with spiritual sustenance instead (John 4:31–34).
When his disciples forget to bring bread on one of their journeys, Jesus sees in their neglect a warning against spiritual self-delusion (Mark 8:11–21).
Hardly are the blind given sight or the lame strength without our Lord perceiving deep spiritual significance in the act.
And when he is on the cusp of one of his greatest miracles of all — the raising of Lazarus from the dead — he is still not content to let the miracle merely stand on its own two feet (as it were) but insists on making that act, too, a symbol of something greater: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
Why is it, after all, that Jesus is so adept at teaching in parables, but that he sees life as supremely parabolic? Were Jesus to respond to Oscar Wilde (as one day he surely will), we might imagine him saying, “Obviously everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about me.”
Jesus the Romantic
Everything in the world is about Jesus: every story a gloss to the gospel; every event significant in proportion to its proximity to the great Event; every holiday, sacred or secular, is holy precisely because it is a day. And certainly romance is included in the scope of everything in the world that is about Jesus.
Yes, romance and all that is included under that rubric belong to that divine Lover: Saint Valentine and all his retainers, from the red roses to the candle-lit dinners, even down to the tiny candy hearts — they all point to Jesus, the great Wooer, who, not content with passively inviting, by his Spirit sovereignly draws his beloved to himself.
This image of Christ as a romantic sits uneasily with us, though we have been well instructed in its companion image of Christ as a husband from Ephesians 5 and elsewhere. Why will we consent to appropriate the imagery of marriage for this spiritual relationship but remain uncomfortable with its corollaries? Perhaps we consider marriage to be more dignified on the one hand, than romantic courtship, and more proper than sexual intimacy on the other. But everything in the world is about Jesus, these supposedly undignified and improper things included.
Even Sex and Romance
To forget that sex is about Jesus is to forget (or worse, ignore!) the breathless eroticism of the Song of Solomon.
To forget that romance is about Jesus is to forget his first great miracle at Cana. It was there — at a wedding no less — that this incurable Romantic found himself in the role of Valentine, filling empty cups with wine, lest the excitement of the revel wane. If the modern iconoclastic prudes had their way, they would report Jesus telling his mother, “They don’t really need the wine. The wedding vows are the important thing. Everything else is secondary.” But he couldn’t say that. Because nothing else is secondary. Everything in the world is about Jesus.
Jesus himself sees this truth more clearly than anyone, employing once again that habit of seeing the world symbolically (a habit learned, no doubt, from his Father), perceiving in the wedding feast a dim reflection of his own eternal romance. This romance, though hand-fasted from before the foundations of the world, and consummated in eternity, would still not be a reality before it was paid for with the wine of the new covenant. Seeing all of this in the silly romance of the day, Jesus says merely, “My hour has not yet come.” And so the wine flows.
When we elevate romance in our celebrations of Saint Valentine’s Day, we are doing more than supporting the manufacture of all things kitsch. We are appropriating an entirely unnecessary and entirely wonderful event in order to take our place in a tradition of romance and courtly love that points squarely to our Lord.
Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. (Hosea 2:14)